If you want an illustration of how far things have shifted for Windows tablets in the last year, then you only need to look at Dell’s new Venue 11 Pro. In 2012 Dell launched its Windows tablet line with the XPS 10, an ARM-based tablet running Windows RT. In 2013, it’s re-launching its Windows tablet line with the Venue 11 Pro, an Intel-based tablet running standard Windows 8.1.
The Venue 11 Pro is a superior tablet in every way, with a better, high-resolution screen, more horsepower and a wider range of connections, but it’s the move to Windows 8.1 that is most telling. It seems that nobody outside of Microsoft and Nokia has any faith in Windows RT anymore, and with “proper” Windows and the full range of applications at its disposal, the Venue 11 Pro feels like a stronger, more flexible device.
With options for Bay Trail Atom or Core i3 CPUs and a price tag that goes from £439 to £619, the Venue 11 Pro also provides a missing link between Microsoft’s budget Windows RT Surface 2 and the premium Windows 8.1 Surface Pro 2.
Apple, Amazon and Google might be fighting it out for the thinnest, lightest tablet title, but Dell isn’t even competing. With its unusual 10.8in screen and rather thick bezel, the Venue 11 Pro is neither particularly svelte nor particularly light. In fact, the Atom version on test here is just over 10mm thick and 772 grams in weight, which makes it heavier than the 676 gram Surface 2, though not the 907 gram Surface Pro 2. It’s a little too heavy to use comfortably one-handed, and makes more sense if you have it resting on the arm of a chair or your lap while you tap away.
On the plus side, the rubberised coating on the plastic rear cover makes it very easy to grip, and you have to twist quite hard before there’s a hint of give where the corners meet the matt grey metallic rim. The cover sports Dell and Intel Inside logos, along with a small symbol to highlight the tablet’s NFC connectivity, while there’s a slight bulge at the top where the 8-megapixel camera pokes through.
The Venue 11 Pro is a big improvement over the XPS 10 when it comes to connectivity. It still has a headphone out, a microUSB port and a microSD card slot, but also packs a mini-HDMI port for an external display and – best of all – a full-sized USB 3.0 port. With this, it can connect to any USB 2.0 or 3.0 device that will run on Windows 8.1. What’s more, with NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi, it couldn’t be better equipped for wireless connectivity.
Look at the bottom of the tablet and you’ll also spot another proprietary connector with a selection of contacts to either side. These allow the Venue 11 Pro to work with a range of docks and keyboard covers, including a Surface-style ultra-light keyboard cover that attaches magnetically, a bigger mobile keyboard cover with a rechargeable battery, or a desktop docking station (see the image below). There’s also a stylus accessory for handwriting recognition, annotation and more precise control. Sadly, none of these accessories were available for test. That’s a shame. With a keyboard cover attached the the Venue 11 Pro could rival the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 as a convertible Ultrabook-style device.
Screen and sound
Like most of the first-generation Windows RT and Windows 8 tablets, the XPS 10 was saddled with a 10.1in, 1366 x 768 screen that was – at best – mediocre. Luckily, Dell has understood that 1920 x 1080 is the new baseline standard, so we get a full HD 1080p 10.8in screen. That’s two-thirds of an inch larger than the screen on your average tablet, and 0.2in larger than the screen on the Surface RT. That’s bad news for pixel density, but good news if you plan to get some work done, as that little extra bit of screen real estate makes it easier to see what you’re doing if you’re working on Office documents, browsing complex web pages or using the Windows Snap split-screen view.
Quality, meanwhile, is very good. Text still looks smooth and crisp, and while the display isn’t the brightest we’ve seen – particularly if you let Windows control the levels – it has wide viewing angles and an impressive richness and depth of colour to compensate. It’s a fine screen for productivity, but a good screen for entertainment too.
Audio is a mixed bag. It’s clearer and much more detailed than you generally get from a tablet, with a wider stereo sound. Unfortunately it’s also thin and a little bit wearing, particularly if you’re playing music. As with the vast majority of tablets, we’d recommend headphones if you want the best sonic experience.
Barring miraculous sales of Surface 2 and Nokia’s Lumia 2520, it looks more and more like the combination of an x86 processor and a Windows 8.1 OS is the future for Windows tablets. You get all the touch-friendly UI features and apps of a Windows RT tablet, but without losing the Desktop interface and x86 applications. When used just as a tablet the Desktop interface doesn’t bring that many advantages to the Venue 11 Pro; too few applications are designed for small, high-definition displays, let alone touch control. Yet it does mean that you can attach it to a keyboard dock or Bluetooth mouse and keyboard combo, and use the Dell much like you would a small 11.6in laptop or Ultrabook.
There’s a lot of functionality now baked into the OS, the selection of apps in the Windows Store is steadily improving, and the split screen “Snap” views are incredibly useful and unmatched on Android and iOS. Just be aware – although the Venue 11 Pro comes with 64GB of flash storage as standard, the OS and applications will occupy a hefty chunk. Having installed Netflix, Asphalt 8 and a handful of other apps, we were only left with around 35GB to play with.
When it comes to your choice of platform, it really depends on what you’re looking for. If you want a tablet that can run Office and sync files with a desktop or laptop using SkyDrive, then a Windows tablet is by far the best choice, and you can still find apps to handle all the other core functions. If you want access to the latest, most creative and most innovative apps, then iOS and Android still bring you a wider range of these.
The base-level Venue 11 Pro runs a quad-core Atom Z3770 processor at 2.4GHz, along with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. Previous Atoms have always struggled to run anything beyond the most basic applications, which is one reason why the old netbooks fell so far out of favour, but that’s not true of the new Bay Trail processors. While you still wouldn’t want to do a lot of heavy work in photo, design or video editing apps, there’s enough power here to cope with Office, some light photo editing and other mainstream tasks. Meanwhile, the Geekbench 3 score of 961 single-core and 3606 multi-core doesn’t just compete with other mid-range to high-end tablets, but also the low-end Core i3 laptops of a year ago.
Tegra 4-based Android tablets pull away slightly in graphics benchmarks like GFXBench, but the Venue 11 Pro can still run the demanding T-Rex HD test at 14 fps onscreen – a very credible result. We still wouldn’t recommend the Dell if you were looking for a part-time games machine, though. It hasn’t got the power to run modern Windows titles, and the selection on the Windows store is pitiful. We also noticed tiny stutters in the otherwise smooth frame rate on high-end titles like Asphalt 8.
If you need more performance, then you can opt for a model with a dual-core Core i3-4020Y or 4300Y processor with 4GB of RAM running 64-bit Windows 8.1. The tablet will be slightly thicker and heavier, though, and you’ll pay £180 extra for the privilege. However, that’s still less than the going rate for a Surface Pro 2.
The Venue 11 Pro has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 2-megapixel front-facer. The latter is fine for video chat, but the image gets noisy if your room isn’t brightly lit. The rear camera is slightly disappointing. While there’s a little more detail in the images than you might see with the 5-megapixel cameras we’re used to from other tablets, it’s slow and not consistently accurate when focusing, and the images are slightly dull with muted colours. Still, as you’re more likely to use it to snap documents or QR codes than actual photos or video, this isn’t much of a deal-breaker.
With the big screen and quad-core processor you’ll get around eight hours of mixed use from a single charge, and a little more if you turn down the brightness and avoid using Wi-Fi. That’s better than the Surface Pro 2, though not the ARM-powered Surface 2. Eight to nine hours is more than adequate for a day of work, and the Venue 11 Pro has one advantage in that you can remove the back cover and replace the battery with a spare – a real rarity in the tablet world.
The Venue 11 Pro is a big improvement on the old XPS 10 and one of the best Windows tablets on the market. It’s fast enough to get some real work done, battery life is more than adequate and it has a great screen. It’s even priced competitively against similarly-specified Android and iOS tablets. It is big, heavy, and a little cumbersome, and it lacks the practical kickstand of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, but if you’re looking for a tablet and productivity is your priority, then this one should be high on your shortlist.
Manufacturer and Model
Dell Venue 11 Pro
2.4GHz Intel Atom Z3770
MicroSD memory card
10.8in 1920 x 1080 IPS
MicroUSB, mini-HDMI, headphones, USB 3.0
2 Cell 32W/HR
Size and weight
177 x 298 x 10.2mm, 772g